- Women’s Voices, Bodies, and the Nation in 1930s–40s Wartime Literature
In both Japan and North America, “Japanese women’s literature” has by now become a recognized part of the field of modern and contemporary Japanese literature. By this I mean that there are numerous scholarly articles and books about Japanese women writers and their writing, and these studies reflect the great diversity of the literature itself, presenting different approaches to authorship, narrative, social context, genre, period, and so on.
However, in both Japan and North America there is still a lot more to be learned about Japanese women and their works during the so-called Fifteen Year War (1931–45). Thanks to an increase in scholarship on 1930s women’s literature, we do have a better understanding of this decade in general, but we still need more exploration of works written from the late 1930s through the years of the Pacific War (1941–45). Indeed, there are fewer studies of “wartime” literature overall, not just of women’s literature, when compared with the number of studies of “prewar” literature and “postwar” literature. Having said that, research into wartime literature has been increasing, along with new ideas of what “wartime” means, more historical and film studies on the period, and a [End Page 3] growing body of scholarship on related topics such as colonial literature, propaganda, censorship, and so on. With respect to wartime women’s writing in particular, new studies and reprinted editions are helping to fill gaps in our knowledge.1 Ways of analyzing this literature are also becoming more complex, reaching beyond easily defined binaries of resistance and complicity while still recognizing their significance.
This special issue of U.S.–Japan Women’s Journal adds to this growing area of research. By highlighting the female voice and body and their relationship to the nation, the essays in this issue of the journal showcase a range of literatures (poetry, kamishibai, and fiction) by women and the diverse ways in which these texts emerged from and engaged with the world around them. Of course, the authors of the articles published here discuss only a few of the many questions associated with this topic, but our different approaches underscore the fact that there is no single absolute framework through which to illustrate the relationship between women’s voices, bodies, and the wartime nation.
The essays have been ordered chronologically in terms of content. In the first article, “Japanese Women’s Poetry from Interwar to Pacific War: Navigating Heterogeneous Borderspace,” Janice Brown explores poetry by Nagase Kiyoko (1906–95), Fukao Sumako (1888–1974), and Mori Michiyo (1901–77) in order to reread the relationship between the female poetic voice/body and the phallic/patriarchal realm associated with empire. Brown employs the notion of borderspace posited by the feminist psychoanalytic theorist and artist Bracha L. Ettinger to investigate the possibilities and limitations of the works of these interwar and wartime poets. This essay greatly contributes to the scholarship on women poets of this period. In addition, Brown provides invaluable access to the poems in their original languages, as well as English translations.
My own essay, “Fat, Disease, and Health: Female Body and Nation in Okamoto Kanoko’s ‘Nikutai no shinkyoku,’” focuses on a 1937 story about a young woman’s struggle with weight. Interpreting this text by Okamoto Kanoko (1889–1939) in light of particular late 1930s concerns, such as individual/national health and disease, I suggest a new view of the work that challenges simple ideas of the female body and its relationship to the nation.
“The Properly Feminine Nationalist Body in the Propaganda Kamishibai of Suzuki Noriko” by Sharalyn Orbaugh discusses three kamishibai (paper theater) plays from 1941 and 1942 by Suzuki Noriko, a scriptwriter who was recruited to write propaganda kamishibai. These plays, performed on the street with a narrator telling the story with sets of simple pictures, are usually considered entertainment for children, but Orbaugh [End Page 4] eloquently shows how a woman writer conveyed complicated messages through this venue for the women in the homeland during a time of total war.
In “From the Nikutai to the Kokutai: Nationalizing the Maternal Body in...